The Filtrate: Track a Pandemic, Feed Your Bugs, and Keep on Eradicating Polio

Another week of this awful year has gone by, so it’s time to survey the damage and sift whatever bits of wisdom we can from the news. Welcome to the Filtrate.

Pandemic rubbernecking

Epidemiologists continue to trace the ways SARS-CoV-2 spreads, and among which groups, producing a mixture of interesting and depressing findings. In Nature Biotechnology, a team based at Yale University describes a novel way of tracking community infection rates: wastewater sampling. Their results show that virus levels in sewage peak just ahead of positive diagnostic test results and hospital admissions for COVID-19. Public health authorities could use that to anticipate and respond to new outbreak waves before they get out of control.

The airline industry didn’t need any more bad news, but here it comes: SARS-CoV-2 does seem to be able to spread aboard commercial flights. In a new paper in Emerging Infectious Diseases, a mostly Vietnamese research team performed detailed tracing on a cluster of COVID-19 cases linked to a 10-hour London-to-Hanoi flight. The map of infected individuals fits closely with the seating arrangement, and proves that paying extra for Business Class isn’t always a good deal.

One of the ongoing questions in the pandemic has been why certain groups – especially African-Americans – are dying of COVID-19 at higher rates. In the latest issue of PLOS Medicine, investigators at the US Veterans Affairs Administration used that organization’s immense database of medical records to investigate the phenomenon. The results are clear; the excess burden of disease in Black and Hispanic patients can’t be accounted for by underlying medical conditions or healthcare access. Instead, it stems from their higher odds of catching the disease, likely because they tend to live in more densely populated areas, work in “essential” but poorly-protected jobs, and generally have higher exposures and fewer protections than whites. In short, structural racism.

Mosquitoes suck

For decades, scientists studying vector-borne diseases have endured an irritating lab chore: feeding their bugs. Traditionally, technicians would roll up their sleeves, stick their arms into cages full of the hungry bloodsuckers, and watch the red welts appear as their charges drank their meals. Some alternative techniques have since been developed, but they all require real vertebrate blood. In a bit of good news for the beleaguered donors, investigators at New Mexico State University have now published a recipe for gourmet mosquito chow. The PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases paper describes the new blood substitute, called SkitoSnack, and shows that it can nourish major disease vectors to a healthy adulthood without anyone having to get bitten or drained.

The Fidel Castro of diseases

The World Health Organization, CDC, and Rotary International have been collaborating for over 30 years to eradicate polio. The length of that effort should tell you how well it’s been going. In the group’s latest update, published in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the leaders of this Sisyphean project describe the latest challenges, including, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. They end by exhorting their partners to keep trudging along. I wish them all the luck they’ll need.

We’ll end this issue of the Filtrate with a bit of romantic advice, courtesy of our friends over at Southern Fried Science. This week on their site, marine biologist Andrew Thaler explains how to hack your immune system to improve your chances of keeping a good mate. If his foolproof strategy doesn’t work for you, it might mean you’re not a female anglerfish. But you should read about it just in case.

That’s all for this week. If you have a story you think will fit through our filter, please let us know directly or post a comment below.